U.S gamers await Singapore ground rules

Oct 4, 2005 6:05 AM

Although the details for its new casinos haven’t yet been revealed, Singapore has made it clear that one simple rule will be in place: No criminal "shadows" or illegal activities will be tolerated.

Once written, Singapore’s Casino Control Bill will be ready as early as next year to spell out the ground rules. Then, in 2007 or 2008, a regulatory body for casinos will be formed.

Its job, said Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng, will be to ensure that "the casinos remain free from criminal influence and that illegal activities on the premises are kept under control."

The regulator will be a full-fledged agency that will play the multiple roles of rule-maker, licensor, inspector, enforcer, auditor and adjudicator, Wong said.

This new department will take shape at least a year before the first of the two casinos opens around 2009.

Even though the casinos will not be up and running for another four years, a small department in the Home Affairs Ministry has already started work quietly.

This six-man committee, headed by former police intelligence department director Raja Kumar and comprising a group of -officers from the police and other departments, will be the nucleus of the casino-regulating agency.

Steve Wynn, Harrah’s, MGM and Kerzner International Ltd. are among about a dozen companies competing for the right for two casino-resort licenses to be issued by the Singapore government.

The casino operators are seeking to tap into a market that’s within a six-hour flight of 2.5 billion people in Asia, and to duplicate the success of new casinos in the Chinese city of Macau.

"Asia, economically, is offering amazing opportunities for growth in terms of disposable income and new customers,’’ said Sean Monaghan, an analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co. in Singapore. "Companies that don’t have exposure to Macau are going to be very interested in Singapore. It will be the largest, the most skilled, best-capitalized casino companies that will likely be awarded the licenses.’’

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who took office in August last year, lifted a four-decade ban on casinos to add "buzz’’ to the city-state after its share of Asia’s tourism market fell.

Merrill Lynch estimates the casino operators will invest $5 billion in the two sites. The Singapore government received 19 proposals when it first sought expressions of interest from developers and casino operators, and 14 were placed on a shortlist.

With two bidders having dropped out, a dozen investment groups are expected to receive a formal "request for proposals."

Details of the bidding process will be announced "soon,’’ Singapore Tourism Board spokesman Rostam Umar said, declining to elaborate.

Among companies that expressed interest, Harrah’s hired Daniel Libeskind, master planner of the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero in New York City, as the architect for one of its Singapore proposals.

Kerzner, operator of the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas, has promised an iconic design, while Las Vegas Sands, which has already opened a casino in Macau, said it will build an 832-room hotel, a convention center and an arena if it wins the right to operate a casino in the city-state.

Asian cities in general are seeking more investment from gaming and entertainment companies.

Walt Disney, the world’s biggest theme-park operator, last month opened a $3.5 billion Disneyland in Hong Kong, the second in Asia. The Burbank, California-based company also said it may open a theme park in Shanghai after 2010.

In Macau, a former Portuguese colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1999, new entrants to the casino market, including Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts, plan to spend a total of $12 billion on new gaming venues for the mass market.

Singapore is counting on its casino-resort projects to create as many as 35,000 jobs and revive a tourism industry whose share of Asia Pacific’s travel market fell to 6 percent in 2002 from 8 percent in 1998.